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Kilili remains hopeful for new relief agreement

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(Office of the CNMI Congressional Delegate) — Despite President Trump’s order to end negotiation over new pandemic relief legislation, U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan said Thursday he believes there will be an agreement, because the need for aid to individuals, businesses, and states and territories is not going away.

“The House has already passed — twice — legislation with a billion dollars for the Commonwealth and our municipal governments, with more food aid, unemployment assistance, and stimulus payments for families in need, with an extension of the Payroll Protection Program to help businesses and non-profits get through the economic crisis,” Congressman Sablan said.

“The Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Jerome Powell said Tuesday that the risks of Congress pouring too much stimulus into the economy are far lower than the risk of not doing enough. Although government spending is adding to an already sky-high federal budget, lawmakers should act. I completely agree with Chairman Powell that until the pandemic is under control, the situation will just get worse. The President and his allies in the Senate cannot ignore that reality.”

Although a new relief measure remains to do, Sablan said the 116th Congress has been very productive. The congressman has had five bills and six amendments passed into law already in this, his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. And he has four more bills piggybacking on the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act, the annual military funding legislation that has never failed to be enacted in over half a century. Sablan was also successful at securing much-needed federal resources for the Marianas in relief legislation after the 2018 typhoons and in the multiple pandemic aid bills enacted this year.

With the President’s decision to walk away from relief negotiations and attention increasingly focused on the Nov. 3 election, the pace of legislative activity has slowed. But Congressman Sablan is eager to get back to legislative work when election season is over, he said. Funding for the federal government ends on December 11 and another spending bill will be needed, providing opportunities to help the Marianas. The current, stop-gap continuing resolution included the Marianas in the Pandemic EBT program, which means $12-16 million in new food aid for households with school-age children.

“I also look forward to completing the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes my provisions that will help small businesses, STEM education, and military spouses in the Marianas.” Sablan amendments to the NDAA will expand access to Small Business Administration resources for Marianas business owners, make the Marianas eligible for the Department of Defense’s STARBASE education program, implement his Military Spouse Career Education Act, and include the Marianas in the nationwide AMBER Alert program.

All four of Sablan’s NDAA provisions have passed the House, and three have passed the Senate. Differences between the House and Senate NDAAs are now being reconciled by a conference committee; and that agreement is expected to be passed before the end of the year.

Securing funds for disaster and pandemic relief

The 116th Congress has been non-stop for Sablan. When his sixth term began in 2019, he was already negotiating to increase aid for the Marianas above the levels in disaster recovery legislation that Republicans had written in December 2018. By June 2019, with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Public Law 116-20, the Disaster Supplemental Appropriations Act was completed; and Sablan had made the Marianas eligible for all major programs. This law included a $244 million community development block grant for disaster recovery, which the Commonwealth and the Trump administration are still deciding how to spend.

Sablan secured another $129 million in special set-asides for the Marianas, which is being spent, including $56 million for solid waste management, $36 million for Marianas Medicaid, $25 million for disaster nutrition assistance, $10.4 million for water and sewer infrastructure, and $2 million for help on managing the flood of new money. Notably, Sablan increased the funding for the Marianas food stamp and Medicaid programs by amending the disaster bill during debate on the floor of the House.

This year, a new disaster struck, Covid-19, and Sablan made sure the Marianas was not left out of national relief bills. He added specific provisions from his own NMI Coronavirus Emergency Assistance Act, H.R. 6123, to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and CARES Act, which were signed into law in February and March.

The CARES Act provided the Commonwealth government with an estimated $37.8 million to make up for lost revenue, increased funding for PSS and NMC, gave students loan debt relief, and made $945 weekly unemployment benefits available in the Marianas for the first time. The CARES Act also included the Marianas in taxpayer recovery rebates, housing assistance, grants and loan opportunities for small businesses, and the funding to pay for health care and procure safety equipment related to the pandemic.

Expanding resources

for Marianas vets

With Democrats in the majority in the House of Representatives and as a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Congressman Sablan has also been expanding resources available to veterans, both in the Marianas and nationwide. Two of his bills, the GI Bill Access to Career Credentials Act and the Disabled Veterans Education Relief Act, were already enacted into law this year.

His chief concern remains making more services available in the Marianas. Two bills now waiting the President’s signature advance that goal. One, the Vet Center Eligibility Expansion Act, includes a Sablan amendment that requires the VA report on how it will provide Vet Center services in the Marianas. The second, the Whole Veteran Act, Sablan also amended to make sure alternative therapies, such as massage and yoga, offered to other veterans also are available to Marianas veterans.

“The pandemic highlights how very hard it is to be forced off-island for healthcare services,” Sablan said. “We want to save veterans that hardship and get them the resources they need right here in the Marianas.”

NMI permanent residency for long-timers now possible

Sablan’s work of fine-tuning the Marianas’ transition to federal immigration continued in the 116th Congress with passage of the Northern Mariana Islands Long-Term Legal Residents Relief Act. Public Law 116-24 gives permanent residence and work authorization in the Marianas to persons who were first allowed to enter the islands under the Commonwealth’s own immigration law. Permanent residence is also available to those left “stateless” as a result of the Marianas Covenant of Political Union with the U.S., and to family members of U.S. citizens. About 2,000 people applied for the permanent status before the August 17 deadline this year.

Sablan also included an immigration provision in last year’s consolidated appropriations act. That law made an additional 3,000 CW permits available for construction workers needed for disaster recovery in the Marianas.

NMI represented in House leadership

In the Democratic majority 116th Congress, Sablan has taken on multiple leadership responsibilities. He was selected to chair the Education Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education and has used this post to include benefits for Marianas schools and students in bills the Education Committee has passed. These include infrastructure funding in the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act that was made part of the House-passed HEROES Act for pandemic relief. Chairman Sablan also ensured a law providing paid STEM fellowships extended to community college students, including those at Northern Marianas College.

Sablan was elected to serve as vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee with responsibility for all insular area issues. He used that position to convene a full committee hearing on the Medicaid funding “cliff” faced by the Marianas and other insular areas, as Obamacare money expired in 2019. Sablan brought all five island Medicaid directors to Washington to testify. The hearing resulted in $120 million in additional funding for Marianas for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 and a reduction in the local match required for federal Medicaid, lower than for any U.S. state.

Sablan said the continuing push for equity with states in Medicaid and other federal programs will be at the top of his agenda in the 117th Congress, which begins in January 2021. Democrats are expected to retain majority control.

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